One topic that is very much on my mind these days is feminism. I continue to notice ways that the world is stacked against women in favour of men.
That I haven’t noticed these things before – things like rape culture, gender-based pay inequality, and the very sexist tendencies in health care – is largely due to the privileged position I hold as a man. It is so collossally easy not to notice injustice, or not to see it as unjust, when you benefit from it.
And now that I notice these things, and see them as wrong, I find myself amazed that not everyone accepts the profound evidence for them. There are people who think accused men are the real victims in sexual assault cases. There are people who think there is no real inequality in income between men and women. There are even people who think anti-abortion laws are pro-feminist. (Wrong, wrong, and wrong!)
Another thing on my mind is Stoicism. Yes, I mean that ancient philosophy that is popularly (but wrongly) associated with emotional constipation and indifference.
I’ve talked about it a little bit already on this site. Today, I’m not really out to give a primer on Stoicism. There are plenty of places where you can begin to learn a little about it – you can read introductions on Reddit’s Stoicism FAQ, or at the Stoicism Today site, or listen to the Good Fortune or Painted Porch podcasts about applying Stoicism to life today, or watch a video about it. (Or, as I did, just do a web search to find dozens of introductions and other resources.)
No, today I have something a little more specific to mull over. You see, when I think about all the ancient Stoics – Epictetus, Marucus Aurelius, Seneca, etc – they’re all men. Well, that’s not too surprising: the ancients, for all their occasional wisdom, had remarkably retrograde attitudes about gender roles and abilities. And when I review all the modern voices of Stoicism that I’ve come across (for example, in the links from the previous paragraph), there are again no women. Massimo Pigliucci, Matt Van Natta, Mark Johnston, Greg Millner, and others.
Now, none of this is to say that those particular men are oppressing women, or in any other way misogynist or anti-feminist. The ancient Stoics have been called proto-feminists (I’ll get to that in a minute). The Painted Porch podcast often mentions women and has female guests, and certainly doesn’t promote anti-feminist ideas in any way I have noticed.
But it does make me wonder: what is behind this? Is Stoicism covertly anti-feminist, and my often privilege-blind detectors just don’t sense it? Is it just that men happened to be early adopters, and women feel unwelcome because they don’t see role models or a place for themselves in Stoicism? Is it because I’m not looking carefully enough for female Stoics?
Now, offline, I have known two people besides myself who have identified themselves as Stoics – one man (the friend who first gave me a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s book, Meditations – hi, Derren!) and one woman (my wife – a partner in every important adventure both physical and intellectual that I have embarked on for the past fifteen years). So that is closer to gender balance than the above survey. But it’s not a broad or representative sample.
What else is out there? Well, there is an academic paper from 2014, “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy” by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford. They look specifically at the ancient Stoics and find that, although by modern standards they fall well short of the mark, they were very progressive in their attitudes about women. In general, the ancient Stoics felt that women had the same inherent abilities as men, but that it was often prudent for them to retain their traditional house-bound roles. The paper also outlines how Stoicism can be adapted to be even more in line with modern liberal feminism.
That’s reassuring, especially after I made the mistake of following a Google search result to this article from the Daily Mail. In the middle of a disturbingly sexist diatribe where it touches, at moments, on colouring abusive sex as a positive force in relationships, the author says,
Such strong and stoic men are exactly what women need to anchor themselves amid the chaos of their emotions.
Amazingly, the author is using the word in almost the right way (from the perspective of philosophical Stoicism). Yes, being able to weather misfortune without being swept away by the emotional consequences is one feature of living Stoically. Unfortunately, the sentence it occurs in is awash with dismissive sexism. Women can’t deal with their emotions unless they have a man to provide a stoical anchor?
So, on the one hand we have Stoicism used as a token for how men are inherently different from (and better than) women. And on the other we have Stoicism as a worldview that is consistent with the equality and empowerment fundamental to modern feminism.
I came across more. A Google search for “stoicism feminism” will disgorge a remarkable variety of perspectives. Enough to overwhelm a determined blogger/researcher.
Fortunately, I have a way to deal with this deluge of conflicting ideas and emotional appeals.
I have Stoicism.
I remind myself that my first duty is to deal with the stuff I have power over: my own behaviours, my own actions, and (to a certain extent) my own emotions.
This means that I don’t need to become defensive if someone says I’m doing Stoicism wrong – perhaps because I’m too interested in emotions, or I’m not masculine enough, or I am too eager to compromise. And I don’t need to get angry when I see people working against gender equality.
To a Stoic, the core good is the development of personal virtue. Becoming a better person. If something happens that doesn’t damage that, then it is not something to get upset about.
What does it mean to become a better person? Well, that all depends on where you start from. I start from being an academic white male, blind to certain privileges but fortunate enough to recognize at least some areas of my blindness. My character development involves attending to those remaining blind spots, and learning to listen to different viewpoints without immediately becoming defensive about my privilege.
Someone else – woman, man, or other – may have different areas to work on. Maybe they need to work on not catastrophizing events out of proportion. Missing a plane flight doesn’t make you into a bad person, so it’s not worth getting worked up over. Having a colleague say something nasty about you doesn’t make you a bad person, so don’t let it throw you into a rage.
Of course, people sometimes think that’s where Stoicism ends: if you can make yourself comfortable with anything that happens, you’re done.
But that’s ridiculous. When I can get to the meeting on time, deciding to hang out on Facebook and miss my bus does erode my character. When I see injustice and have the means to get up and do something about it, sitting on my ass does tarnish my virtue.
Stoicism isn’t about placid inaction. It’s about placid action. I can be an effective, useful member of society without getting enraged or dejected or head-over-heels excited about every last thing.
And when I look at the feminist battlegrounds facing us today, I can’t help but think that Stoicism is exactly the toolset I need to bring to that table. Will other people feel the same way? Maybe, maybe not. But as a Stoic, I don’t need to worry about that. Other people’s choices are theirs, not mine.